(Beirut) – Local armed forces in the northern Iraqi district of al-Ba’aj, issued an order in February 2018 that relatives of male Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members could not return, Human Rights Watch said today.

Minutes of a meeting in al-Ba’aj on February 7, 2018, where sheikhs and mukhtars were instructed not to grant security clearances to relatives of ISIS members. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

This will prevent hundreds of people, if not thousands, from returning home. Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of other families of ISIS suspects across Iraq who faced similar punishments after ISIS fighters fled.

“The Ba’aj decree is one of the clearest pieces of evidence to date that Iraqi authorities are collectively punishing relatives of ISIS suspects,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Local forces and the central government need to answer for this discrimination.”

On April 10, Human Rights Watch reviewed the one-page minutes from a meeting in al-Baˈaj, 130 kilometers west of Mosul, on February 7. Attendees included commanders from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) group Badr, the force controlling the area and under the command of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi; the mayor; and a group of sheikhs, or tribal leaders, and mukhtars, neighborhood leaders. The minutes reflect that collective punishment is being enshrined in the district’s policies.

According to two sources in the town, the population of al-Baˈaj was 13,000 before ISIS took control in 2014. Most residents fled the area and moved to camps for displaced people on June 3, 2017, when PMF groups retook the area from ISIS. Since December, only about 1,000 residents have returned, the sources said.

Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the town on April 10 found it largely deserted, with few people in the streets and buildings damaged and abandoned. Before the February order, residents had to obtain a security clearance to return, stamped by their tribal and neighborhood leader.

But the February meeting minutes state that: “No sheikh or mukhtar shall stamp [documents belonging] to a person who has a son, brother, or father that is an ISIS member.” It goes on to say that, “Any sheikh or mukhtar who signs documents for a person who belongs to ISIS gangs or has a brother, son, or father who belongs to the terrorist ISIS gangs shall be held accountable” and that “Any person who received a security clearance and has a father, son, or brother [who’s a member of ISIS] should be reported to security agencies by a mukhtar.”

The document bears stamps from officials at the meeting, including intelligence officers from the Badr brigade that issued the order, and the district council. It has 23 signatures of mukhtars on the back.

“Of the 12,000 residents of al-Baˈaj still in camps, I would estimate that about 20 percent have an immediate relative who joined ISIS and therefore will not be able to return based on these orders,” one source said. “If any sheikhs or mukhtars broke the rules and stamped the security clearance of the family of an ISIS member, the PMF would bring them in for interrogation.”

International law allows imposing punishment for crimes only on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Similarly ordering the forced displacement of the civilian population for reasons connected with the conflict, apart from imperative military reasons or for their protection, is a war crime.

Numerous government officials have assured Human Rights Watch that relatives of ISIS suspects are innocent in the eyes of the law and that the government has no policies authorizing discrimination against them. But Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of families who are being sanctioned because of their relatives’ perceived affiliation with ISIS.

Some of the relatives interviewed were de facto prisoners in camps, or had been denied needed identity documentation, and faced a range of arbitrary punishments including being removed from beneficiary lists. All of the families, lawyers, and community leaders interviewed have said that the primary hurdle is that the families fail Interior Ministry, Intelligence, and National Security Service (NSS) security screenings because of their relatives’ suspected ISIS affiliation. But these screenings are required to register a birth, death, or marriage, obtain an identity or welfare card, get a job or enroll in school, apply for compensation for losses during the war, or get judicial relief.

Local authorities should reverse any decrees targeting the families of ISIS suspects and remove any obstacles to families’ obtaining civil documentation, compensation, and judicial recourse, Human Rights Watch said. Al-Abadi should issue a decree requiring local authorities to rescind any such decrees and to end forced displacement.

The authorities should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations, including from camps, allow families to choose to stay in camps that allow for free movement into and out of the camp and unrestricted communications, or to relocate elsewhere. If authorities cannot ensure the safety of families because of threat of revenge attacks, they should allow families to choose to relocate to camps or other areas where authorities can provide adequate protection.

“If the Iraqi government is serious when it insists that relatives of ISIS suspects are innocent and should be treated as such, it needs to block local military and security forces from retaliating against them,” Fakih said. “But over a year of investigations indicate that the central government is taking no active measures to prevent its own forces from imposing collective punishment.”